Adelson made Macao, Macao made Adelson

January 26, 2021 10:14
Photo: Reuters

After the handover to China, the Macao SAR government ended the gambling monopoly of Stanley Ho and invited foreign companies to bid for a licence. The big Las Vegas casino owners were not so interested – Macao was small and remote.

In July 2001, Sheldon Adelson, owner of Las Vegas Sands (LVS), met Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen in the Purple Light Pavilion in Zhongnanhai in Beijing. Qian asked him how many hotel rooms he could build in Macao. “How many people do you want?” Qian said. Adelson saw a golden opportunity, with Beijing allowing its people to go to Macao to gamble.

Adelson spent US$265 million to build Sands Macao. It opened on May 18, 2004 and proved to be one of the most lucrative investments in history. On the opening day, 15,000 massed outside and stampeded through the doors. The casino had to call the police to keep order.

Within nine months, it had paid back its construction cost and Adelson was tripling its size, to make it the world’s largest casino. It was the first Las Vegas-style casino in the SAR, with gambling for the mass market, VIP and premium players, entertainment and dining facilities.

In December 2004, Adelson took LVS public and became a multibillionaire overnight. He was one of the earliest to see the unlimited potential of the mainland gambling market. For the next 16 years, until his death on January 11 aged 87, Macao made Adelson one of the richest men in the world. Forbes estimated his worth at US$35 billion.

He continued to invest heavily in the SAR, in the Venetian, the Parisian and the Londoner -- two hotels with 6,000 rooms to open gradually this year, with an investment of US$2 billion.

Sands receives the majority of its income from Macao, where gambling revenue reached US$36.7 billion in 2019, five times the figure of US$7 billion in 2006, when the city exceeded Las Vegas for the first time in gambling revenue. In November 2009, Sands China raised US$2.5 billion through a listing in the Hong Kong stock market.

Adelson’s projects transformed the face of Macao. Its peninsula and Taipa are now a forest of skyscrapers – glitzy casinos and high-end hotels and resorts. The Venetian, a 39-storey casino hotel with 980,000 square metres, is the largest hotel structure in Asia and the seventh largest building in the world by floor area.

But not everything went smoothly. During the 2008 stock market crash, Adelson lost US$25 billion. To prevent his company from going under, he and his family invested US$1 billion of their own money into LVS. Even during this crisis, he continued his next mega project, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore, with an investment of US$5.6 billion. It has three 55-storey hotel towers, 800,000 square feet of retail space and two theatres with 4,000 seats.

Adelson was born in Boston, son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His father drove a taxi and his mother ran a knitting shop from home. He, his three siblings and parents slept in one room. He started his business career selling newspapers on the street, then a machine sending candy, court reporter, and service in the army.

His big break came in 1979, when he launched an independent trade show in Las Vegas for the personal computer business. In 1989, he bought the Sands Hotel. He demolished it in 1996 and built the Venetian, with 4,000 rooms and the world’s largest casino.

Chinese gamblers in Sands and the Venetian may wonder where their money has gone. Much of it has been given to Israel, especially after his second marriage in 1991 to Miriam Ochshorn, an Israeli physician. He gave generously to right-wing causes in Israel, including the Ariel University in the West Bank, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Adelson was one of the greatest contributors in history to the Jewish people, Zionism, settlements and the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said after his death. His funeral was held and he was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

The Adelsons were also the biggest individual contributors to the Republican Party, giving almost US$220 million in 2020. One reward for this was the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018.

When asked at a gambling conference what his legacy would be, Adelson said that it was not his glitzy casinos or hotels, but rather his impact in Israel. He donated US$25 million, a record sum for a private citizen, to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and also established a think tank in Jerusalem.

Back in 2001, Vice-Premier Qian could never have imagined such an outcome.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.